No ‘God complex’ in Net safety, please

In his TED Talk, author Tim Harford tells the story of World War II prisoner of war Dr. Archie Cochrane and the start of his life-long observation about “the God complex” – the idea some people have that, no matter how complex the problem or conditions, they understand the way it all works and are “infallibly right” in what the solution should be. Problematic, if not dangerous in this fast-changing, complex world. Harford’s talk is about the need for humility and the trial-and-error, often collaborative, approach to problem-solving – and avoiding the temptation to put “some incredibly smart person in charge.” He writes about business and economics, but he sounds a lot like Marc Prensky (who coined the terms “digital natives and immigrants” but now writes about the need for “digital wisdom” – see this) and Arizona State University Prof. James Paul Gee, who writes about the fun, continuous trial and error, win and fail, in videogames and all the learning that happens in that process.

Harford says that people tell him he’s stating the obvious, and what he says back is that, “when schools stop teaching children that all problems have a correct answer and there’s an authority figure behind the desk in the front of the room who has all the answers, and if you can’t find the answers, you must be lazy or stupid,” he’ll admit he’s stating the obvious. In a review of Harford’s latest book, Adapt: Why Success Starts with Failure, Alex Knapp at Forbes, links to a moment in “Disney’s very underrated [2007] film Meet the Robinsons [when] Lewis, the young protagonist” is crestfallen when he fails to solve a technical problem, then finds himself surrounded by people saying in different ways, “Congratulations! You Failed!” (here’s the clip in YouTube, if any of you parents and educators want to show it to your kids). And so what’s my point? It’s that of course there’s also no single authority or skill set – whether law enforcement, policymaker, social worker, lawyer, online-safety advocate, etc. – who has the complete picture on and solution to youth online risk or even any aspect of it. Why not? Because 1) the online risk spectrum maps to the “real life” one and no one has the solution to that risk spectrum yet, 2) online risk is situational, a freeze frame in a real-life context such as school life, and 3) on today’s social Internet, we’re not just talking about one life, but intersecting lives and shared experiences, only increasing the complexity. So “God complexes” in online safety are not helpful. All skill sets, especially that of a loving parent or guardian who cares enough to want to heal kids’ hurt while working out solutions (or compromises), are needed. And an appreciation for trial and error – for the fallibility and humanity of adults as well as kids – is huge. But if God’s wisdom is reflected in “the wisdom of the crowd” and the crowd includes our children, that’ll help too!


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